“Robot! How’s the weather today?” “Yes, sir! The morning low was 22 degrees Celsius and the midday high will be 28 degrees. The possibility of rain is 80 percent.”
This is not a scene in a science fiction movie but will be a reality late this year in Korean homes, thanks to the country’s ubiquitous robotic companion (URC) project.
The Ministry of Information and Communication (MIC) took the wraps off several URC robots, which are all hooked up to the Web via wireless Internet.
Among the models, the ministry will start a feasibility test with five designed for home usage by releasing 64 dummies to as many households in Seoul and its vicinity in October.
In addition, two kinds of public-usage robots will make their debut a month later in post offices at Kangnam, southern Seoul and in Puchon, Kyonggi Province.
“After confirming the commercial viability of the models through a pilot run, we aim to launch home machines with a price range of between 1 and 2 million won late next year,” said Oh Sang-rok, MIC project manager who is in charge of the URC scheme.
The ministry embarked on the URC project in 2004 and finished the development of prototypes in just 18 months by deploying an innovative strategy.
Instead of pouring money to catch up with sophisticated robots like Japan’s Asimo, arguably the world’s most advanced walking robot, the ministry took a unique approach of using the country’s state-of-the-art Internet infrastructure.
Smart robots need three basic functions; sensing, processing and action and robotics researchers have tried to cram the three into a single machine, causing the model’s price to soar.
By contrast, Oh’s team braced for a paradigm shift of outsourcing most sensing and processing capabilities by connecting to the high-speed Internet while the moving capability is provided by the robot.
“In a nutshell, URC robots just provide hardware with the ability of action while most software comes from the broadband through the wireless Internet. That is the secret how robot prices can go south,” Oh said.
Five-Wheeled Household Robots
Five-wheeled home robots can be divided into three categories : high-end Jupiter, mid-range Nettoro and Roboid, which look like clever toys.
The 52-centimeter tall Jupiter can recognize its owner’s voice and do what it is told to do like going online to search data and singing a song for entertainment.
In the morning, it can go to the bedroom to wake up people following pre-set orders and guard the home around the clock in accordance with orders from its owner, who can have it survey suspicious situations or people by cell phone command.
When its embedded battery is nearly up, it automatically finds a charger after shouting, “It’s time to eat!”
Nettoro, the bigger mid-tier model with a height of 70 centimeters, can also provide information by connecting to the wireless Web and offer home-monitoring services.
It has the ability to clean rooms with its built-in vacuum cleaner and can read school notices, which teachers send in the form of e-mail.
Roboid is a cute toy-like miniature robot available in three different versions : 22.5-centimeter high Cubo, 27-centimeter Donkey and 16.5-centimeter Panda.
They provide educational content by narrating fairy tales for kids or helping in English-language study. They also tune radio signals and read e-mail with motion designated by the sender, the feature sometimes called “three-dimensional e-mail.”
As the first-phase trial operation, eight Jupiters, 16 Nettoros and 40 Roboids will be offered to 56 households in Seoul and its vicinity where the broadband convergence network (BcN) is installed.
“In operating the network-based robots, the BcN is indispensable. We plan to start the second-phase test early next year by deploying more than 200 machines into BcN-available homes,” said Park Jin-woo, a top lieutenant of project manager Oh.
BcN is the next-generation high-speed Internet, which promises data transmission speed of up to 100 megabits per second, around 50 times faster than the current norm.
The government looks to finish the BcN project, which converges all networks into a single one nationwide, by 2010 and currently trial services are underway by four consortiums.
When commercialized, prices of Jupiter, Nettoro and Roboid would be roughly 2 million won, 1 million won and 500,000 won each, according to Park.
Two Post Office Robots
In November, two sophisticated robots will greet people when they pay a visit to post offices in Taechi-dong, southern Seoul and Chung-dong at Puchon,
A 1.5-meter tall male-type security robot, uPostMate, will guard the post office all day long and can shoot a net to capture intruders at night.
A 1.2-meter female-type counterpart, PGR, will take care of customers by showing fun video clips to waiting clients on a built-in monitor.
“In addition to the post office, the robots can be used for banks or other government agencies by handily changing their software. In that sense, they have huge potential,” Oh said.
However, experts say there remain two roadblocks in applying the robots into commercial use _ the high price tag and security woes.
The post office machines, also move on wheels like home-usage models, take more than 5 million won to build today, a price level that might scare off even rich corporate customers.
Developers are jockeying to settle the problem by reducing the price to around 2 million won via mass production.
Another worry is security as pointed out by Samsung Electronics researcher Park Ki-cheol, who has participated in the consortium to develop uPostMate.
“Because URC robots are operated by wireless Internet they are vulnerable to malicious acts, like hacking. Therefore, security is a legitimate concern and we should find a way to prevent hackers,” Park said.
Oh admitted that possible security holes and leakages of personal information are main concerns, which research teams are now trying to address.
“We will continue to plug potential security holes through several-phase trial runs of URC robots. Toward that end, we will not reserve any efforts,” he said.